written by:
photos by:
June 14, 2009
Originally published in Green Is Good

What sort of house might a man with the title “recycling coordinator” live in?

ann arbor, michigan, house
Tom McMurtrie and Genia Service with their five-year-old son, Gary.
Photo by 
1 / 4
Poured-concrete floors are heated using radiant coils embedded in the floor. The dining table and chairs are by John Widdicomb Furniture. The light fixtures are by Weplight.
Photo by 
2 / 4
The base of the house was built using a custom-prefabricated concrete foundation.
Photo by 
3 / 4
The roof is a standing-seam steel roof from Wick Building. The material came to the site in two rolls of 28-gauge steel and was roll-formed onsite.
Photo by 
4 / 4
ann arbor, michigan, house
Tom McMurtrie and Genia Service with their five-year-old son, Gary.

Would it be constructed entirely of old aluminum cans? Or would it consist solely of yesterday’s newspapers and last week’s New Yorker? It might surprise you to learn that even in the liberal bastion of Ann Arbor, Michigan—where aluminum-can cottages might be welcomed with open arms—the person holding that post lives in nothing of the sort.

Located on a quiet residential street in this university town, the home of Tom McMurtrie—the recycling coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor for the past 14 years—and his wife, graphic designer Genia Service, was designed and built with careful attention to energy usage. Though it incorporates energy-efficient materials, a stereotypical hard-core hippie house it is not.

Christened the SunHome by the family, the house was designed by Monroe, Michigan–based designer Tonino Vicari, who began the project fresh out of the University of Michigan’s architecture school. “We were both interested in the clean, contemporary look,” says McMurtrie of his and his wife’s decision to build their home from the ground up rather than trying to buy into some of Ann Arbor’s older housing stock. “It is something neither of us had lived in before.” Service continues, explaining that she “grew up on a farm and then I lived in a small Victorian for 12 years in San Francisco. But I guess I’ve always wanted a loft.” And now she has one—complete with a backyard and a garage.

Despite its overwhelmingly industrial appearance, the unusual home responds to Michigan’s changing climate like a champ. In the summer, when the angle of the sun is higher, the interiors receive less heat but remain bright while the concrete floors keep cool throughout the day. In winter, the lower angle of the sun warms the rooms directly and radiant heating coils in the floor heat the house. But these are just the beginnings of a home whose whole being is predicated on its relationship to the sun.

Addressing the couple’s desire for a cutting-edge house that still respected its immediate surroundings as well as the environment in general, Vicari designed a two-story, C-shaped structure, which he placed neatly on a quarter  acre of land and built around a 75-year-old magnolia tree that blossoms with pink flowers every spring. With its reflective steel cladding on the sun-drenched second floor and reclaimed wood from an old barn on the heavily shaded ground floor, the flat-roofed SunHome looks not unlike an early Frank Gehry project. The weather-worn red-painted panels of reused barn wood are visible in the courtyard, but the color on the wood fades into a silver hue as it wraps around the garage. While the exterior shape of the house was largely derived from the magnolia tree—which the house elegantly frames and preserves—the interior space was guided by an advanced software simulation tool called  Lightscape. Used to predict the light conditions during specific times of the year, and even down to definitive times of the day, the computer studies also helped deter-mine where all rooms and windows would be placed and the size of each. “The morphology of the house was based on the maximum solar absorption,” Vicari explains. This thinking has led to a home flooded with natural light and also allows for the bare minimum of electricity usage year-round.

A basement boiler efficiently distributes hot water through radiant heating tubes cast into the concrete floors, helping to eliminate stuffy hot air in winter. According to McMurtrie, the house’s complete energy costs are nearly the same as those of a more traditional neighboring house with half the square footage. “It’s great to show people an alternative,” he says. “People are excited that this is a different way to build a house. And it doesn’t cost that much more.”

McMurtrie and Service admit that a steel-clad house on a street of older homes in a Midwestern town has attracted its share of disapproving bystanders. “A lot of people really love it, but it’s a bit controversial to some,” says McMurtrie. “But it’s also in the Midwest, so it’s got a little bit of Garrison Keillor.” Regardless, there’s proof that the house has finally won over the neighborhood: Vicari is set to begin construction on a similar house right next door.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016